Fingers Crossed for Future of Sustainable Sites Initiative

SITES is back, but is it here to stay?

Last week, the Sustainable Sites Initiative (SITES) released the SITES v2 Rating System.  The comprehensive rating system evaluates the performance and sustainability of landscapes and offers benchmarks for designers, developers, and policy makers to achieve when creating and implementing designs.  SITES is still in its infancy in comparison to programs like LEED, but does it have potential as a component of landscape design?

The SITES website contains galleries of all SITES certified projects around the country. Image via  Sustainable Sites

The SITES website contains galleries of all SITES certified projects around the country. Image via Sustainable Sites

SITES was developed with the idea that landscapes are the foundation of the built environment and can be designed, engineered, and managed to create resilient environments that have the capacity to mitigate and reverse the slow moving vulnerabilities and threats created by the development patterns and practices of modern society.  By leveraging, supporting, and improving ecosystem services, SITES aims to improve the environment, quality of life for all stakeholders, and measure the economic value of the built environment. 

The SITES v2 Rating System is the result of three reports published since 2007 that outlined performance benchmarks and guidelines.  A two-year pilot program field-tested the rating system on over 160 projects throughout the United States.  The results, along with public comment, culminated in the SITES v2 Rating System that will continue to evolve as more projects are studied and more data is collected.  The rating system contains 18 prerequisites and 48 credits totaling 200 points measuring the sustainability of a project.  The guidelines aim to foster creativity and innovation while being agile enough to adapt to the unique conditions of each site. 

Mesa Verde Visitor and Research Center, a Two-Star SITES-Certified project. Image via  Sustainable Sites

Mesa Verde Visitor and Research Center, a Two-Star SITES-Certified project. Image via Sustainable Sites

To achieve the intended results of a more resilient and sustainable built environment, the SITES v2 Rating System will require considerable support from the design and development community.  The rating system presents several challenges to the current standard protocol of site design.  Appropriate site selection and analysis is an essential (if not the most essential) aspect of the rating system.  This will require the design team to become involved earlier in the design process than is currently typical.  Well before a concept or schematic design is conceived, the design team will need to engage the client in site selection and analysis.  A pre-design phase may be necessary to identify and analyze several sites before they are procured so that they can serve the needs of the client while achieving the SITES prerequisites.  Additionally, the design team may need to be retained well after the project is complete to oversee maintenance and measure the performance of the site.  This will require skilled maintenance and management firms that can adapt to the new technologies that will evolve to measure performance, conserve resources, and adjust to the unique concerns for each site and design.   

The added costs of such services will need to be measured against the savings achieved through conservation and the overall health of the built environment.  The design team must demonstrate to the client the benefits of higher upfront cost against the cost savings over the life of the project.  The added time and the potentially higher upfront costs are probably the largest obstacles SITES needs to overcome to achieve market penetration.  A critical mass of SITES-certified projects is needed to create the intended paradigm shift in the way we design, build, and manage the built environment. 

Although challenging, the SITES v2 Rating System’s metric-based analysis offers data that can be leveraged to explain and educate the client, the public, and the policy makers on the real world benefits of sustainable design. As landscape architects, we've got our fingers crossed that the Sustainable Sites Initiative is able to succeed in a way that not promotes not only environmental sustainability, but also economic viability for our clients in the future. 


UT - Sustainable Landscape Rating System Available for Worldwide Use

Wildflower Center - Sustainable Sites

ASLA - About the Sustainable Sites Initiative